The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress
July/August 2005
FEATURE
 
 

The Women's Army Museum
 

BY KAREN SPEARS ZACHARIAS

The idea of women defending the nation continues to make many Americans squeamish. But it’s a moot point.

Women have been serving in battle zones since the Revolutionary War when they would cut their hair short, bind their breasts, and don soldiers’ garb. The female soldiers of today no longer have to disguise themselves. The jobs they do and the risks they take are every bit as demanding and dangerous as the ones their fathers held in other American wars.

The death rates reflect that. As of July 1, a total of 39 female U.S. troops died in Iraq and three female Defense Department employees were killed while working there. Six female troops died serving in Afghanistan. Some were mothers. Army Sgt. Pamela Osbourne was killed Oct. 11, 2004, by shrapnel from a rocket attack on her camp in Baghdad. A native of Jamaica, Osbourne, 38, came to America when she was 14 with two dreams—to become a citizen and to serve in the military. Her husband, Rohan Osbourne, of Ft. Hood, Texas, said his wife was the only person in the world who understood him.

“I’m a hard nut to crack but she put up with me for 19 years,” he said. The couple has three children, ages 9 to 16. Rohan said his wife understood the dangers of her job but that “being a soldier is something she always wanted to do.”


The Army Women’s Museum in Fort Lee, Virginia, has long recognized the sacrifices of women like Sgt. Pamela Osbourne. The mission of the museum is to collect and preserve the legacy of service among women from all branches of the military.

The museum has 5,000 square feet of exhibits, a 60-seat theater, 25,000 square feet of storage space, and hosts nearly 23,000 visitors annually. Director Judy Matteson said guests are constantly amazed by the variety of tasks women have accomplished in service to their country.

“People don’t recognize that women play such a large part in today’s military,” Matteson said. From supply clerk to surgeon, from attorney to nurse, the scope of jobs in the military reflects in many ways the ever-expanding role of women. The reasons why women enlist aren’t any different than the reason why men do. “Women are every bit as patriotic as men, and joining the military gives them opportunities they might not have otherwise.”

That includes educational and professional opportunities. Matteson said she is impressed with the female soldiers who get assigned detail at the museum. “They just do everything. It’s amazing to watch them. You can throw anything at them, and they do their best. One of the things the military teaches them is that anything is possible,” Matteson said.

She believes that getting the public to accept the expanding role of women in the military is just a matter of time and better education. “I think it’s just ingrained in our culture that men have always fought the wars. It wasn’t until World War II that people actually saw women serving,” Matteson said.

The museum wasn’t always located at Fort Lee. Initially, it was located at Fort McClellan, Alabama, home to the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) Center and School. In 1954, a group of women recognized that the Women’s Army Corps needed a museum to preserve its history. Memorabilia, information, and historical items were collected and displayed in a wing of the WAC Training Battalion Headquarters. The museum was named the Edith Nourse Rogers Museum after the congresswoman who introduced the WAAC and WAC bills in 1942. The museum was relocated to Fort Lee and renamed when the Women’s Army Corps was deactivated and Fort McClellan closed in 1999. Fort Lee was selected because it is home of the First Regular Army and Women’s Army Corps Training Center. Many members of the Women’s Army Corps were trained and served at Fort Lee.

Matteson said plans are under way to expand and update the museum. Meanwhile, a new exhibit opened in late January that pays tribute to the branches of the military in which women served. The first exhibit honors the Judge Advocates and will include a uniform worn by Chief Warrant Officer Sharon Swartworth of Alexandria, Virginia. Swartworth died in Iraq when the helicopter she was riding in was shot down. Swartworth was the regimental warrant officer for the Judge Advocates General Office based at the Pentagon.

The museum hosted a reunion April 27-30 to commemorate the service of women in the military. For further information, call the museum at 804-734-4326 or e-mail awmweb@lee.army.mil

   

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